- Client:'I want to be number 1 in Google.'
- Me:Sigh. 'Everyone does. Did you have any keywords in mind?'
- Client:'I was thinking of all these words.' (Client hands me a list of words including "sex", "poker", "loans" and so on.)
- Me:'Those have nothing to do with your business.'
- Client:'Yes, but lots of people search for them.'
- Me (thinks):'Did I travel back in time to 1996? Am I suddenly the Marty McFly of SEO? I wonder why DeLorean cars weren't more popular ...'
- Me:'Sorry. Ok, we need to talk. Let me explain how search and online marketing actually work ...'
It is amazing how many people hire online marketers without the faintest idea of what online marketers actually do. Search engine optimisation (SEO) is fairly simple - SEOs will try and improve your site's performance, usually by trying to leverage their knowledge of how search engines work and tricks they can use to make sites seem more relevant than they actually are to specific keywords.
Marketing online, though, need not have anything to do with search engines. Search engines are irrelevant - good positions and traffic are a by-product of effective online marketing.
Unfortunately, after educating a client on what online marketing is, they usually assume that if they pay you a few hundred pounds, you can make their site compete with the very best out there.
- Client:'Ok, I see. Great positions aren't necessarily worth much unless there are customers searching for those keywords.'
- Me:'Right. We want high traffic, but not if it's not going to be bad for your bottom line. Traffic that doesn't convert to sales just costs you money. Same applies for phrases people never search for. No point being number one for the phrase "fish banana druid" - it's likely to get you as many customers as peeing on people that walk past your shop will.'
- Client:'Ok, so if I pay you, say, £300, how long before I'm at number one for this list of relevant phrases?'
- Me:'You wouldn't get in a boxing ring with Joe Calzhaghe after jogging a couple of miles and doing a few push-ups, would you?'
- Client:'Well, no.'
- Me:'Exactly. To compete with the big dogs, you need to think bigger. Your site is a 10 stone weakling at the moment, and the aim is to turn it into a champion. It needs to be Rocky Balboa. You won't get the top spots quickly - this takes time and hard work. And it's not cheap.'
People are obsessed with money. Absolutely obsessed. Even more so in a company environment. The chances are the most of the time, the person you are talking to at a client (or potential client) company is not the top dog. They have to justify their decisions, and they certainly have to justify what they spend.
The problem is that the way most people look at SEO (and they are thinking SEO, not marketing - it's up to you to show them the difference) is that they're going to pay a certain amount of money for the top spots for certain keywords. You can guarantee they've been told another company will guarantee 10 number 1 positions for $50.
This is where ROI comes into play. ROI stands for "Return on Investment". Paying $50 for a $0 return is a bad idea - but people do it all the time, because it's cheap. Paying $5,000 for a $50,000 return is a great idea - but people gasp at the very idea they could spend that much in the beginning, despite the potential.
In order to measure a return, you need to use tracking. If you're focussed on natural search, measure natural search traffic. See how many people come to the site, and where from. See where they go in the site. See if they view products, add them to a basket, and complete sales. See if they view products then come back weeks later to buy them. Measure that over time and you can tell a client exactly what effect your marketing campaign is having - and you will be able to show them what they are getting for their money. Usually, telling a client you are going to do this will also put their mind at ease - much easier to spend money on someone when that person tells you how they're going to measure their success. Most companies involved in SEO and online marketing focus on positions, not results.
- Client:'That's good to know. If I can see what's going on, I can give hard numbers to my boss. I'd rather tell him we have 10% more visitors and 20% more sales than tell him we're in top positions for our target phrases but traffic has gone down.'
- Me:'Woohoo! You've taken your first step into a larger world.'
The other thing to bear in mind with money conversations is that most companies think of their site like a brochure. They think of it as a print-like cost, where they pay a fixed sum and that's it. They put the site up, leave it, and expect results. They should be thinking of a site like a salesman. A salesman that never sleeps, rarely gets ill, and can handle virtually unlimited enquiries. As such, they should be thinking of the money they spend more like a wage.
- Client:'We're spending $200 a month on our site now for hosting. Are you saying we should be spending a lot more?'
- Me:'What would you pay a salesman with the figures your site has, ignoring PPC?'
- Client:'Probably $3000 a month.'
- Me:'Then that's what you should be spending on the site. As the figures get better, spend a little more. Remember that that needs to include redesigns, hosting and other costs.'
(Note: PPC is something of a difficult subject to bring in to a monthly spend on a site. You should have a monthly spend on PPC, but it should be managed as a separate entity.)
The same traffic you are monitoring to see where site visitors are coming from and what they are doing when they reach the site can also give you some good places to start making changes. Break the traffic down by area, by language, by time of day (user time of day, not server time of day), and track who converts to a sale and who doesn't. Track people through the sales process, and watch which links they click to navigate and buy products.
This will tell you a huge amount about the current users of the site. It will show you quick wins, opportunities, and highlight problems. Forget search - if on your first day marketing a website you can spot that there is a problem with the site checkout process and get it fixed, you could double sales from existing users. That's a good start to any campaign.
Look at language and area closely as well. If a site is getting traffic from the US, but only sells to the UK, look at similar companies only serving the US and strike a deal with them. You direct US traffic to them, they direct UK traffic to you, and you both do slightly better.
Check browser usage stats, especially if the site is a tables-based dinosaur. The chances are that it is an inaccessible mess. Get it cleaned up! Semantic markup is key - it allows user agents (browsers, search engine spiders, screen readers) to attach specific meaning to different areas of a page. Unlike with tables, semantic markup allows you to differentiate between a header and normal content, or to identify an address. Accessible coding is likely to draw attention, and should help you retain a higher percentage of your visitors, and should help reduce the running costs of your website (lower bandwidth bills and quicker turnarounds on redesigns, for example, both save you money).
- Client:'I don't care about different browsers though - they only make up 1% of my traffic. Everyone else uses Internet Explorer'
- Me:'Perhaps it is because your site doesn't work in other browsers that that number is so low. Even if you do have 99% of users on the same system, the other 1% is still important. Techies use different browsers and operating systems. Techies are also often the people who are asked by their families if they know a good site to buy something from. Many directory editors are in the same boat, and techies can create links to your site.'
- Client:'Ok, techies are important. But do I need to care about blind users and all that accessibility stuff?'
Dynamic sites are slightly trickier to improve. Most of the time, they are restricted, with the original authors not allowing access to the website code. Even if access to the code is allowed, changes may be overwritten later or worse cause immediate problems on the site. That said, making a site easier to use is important, and often dynamic sites are not easy to use.
Look at the pages users visit in the site, and how they get there. Look at the products they buy and spot themes. Use that information to make the important sections and products easier to find and organise. For example, if listing products, don't make people click through 4 levels of navigation to find them - improve the product navigation. Once they get there, allow them to reorder the page according to what they consider important, be that name, price, manufacturer - whatever is possible.
Remember also that people like to tell other people about things they find. If a user likes something on your site, they may email the address of the page they are on to a friend. Most people use forms to set the ordering criteria of a page. That means that the user will be sending a friend a URL that will show that friend something different to what the user currently sees. Make life easy for your users - use URLs, not forms, wherever possible in a site.
- Client:'I am curious about one thing. We're already really well ranked for the name of our main product, and lots of people search for it. The people that visit our site tend to buy the product. But I can't help feeling that there should be more people coming from the engines. Any ideas?'
- Me:'Yes. The Overture Search Term Suggestion Tool', capitalising my speech for no good reason, 'shows that millions of people search for that phrase. I can see you have a top spot. And your traffic is surprisingly low, but converting well.'
- Client:'So I'm not imagining it then - we have a problem?'
- Me:'Yes, we do. When a user looks at search results, they scan the first two or three words of each link. Your link says "Arthur Jackson Ltd. Sheds and other garden products." That comes from your page title.'
- Client:'And that's bad?'
- Me:'Most people will only glance at "Arthur Jackson Ltd". You need to show them, in the first two or three words of your page title, that you have what they are looking for. And you're not doing that. The user has no reason to click on your link ahead of all the others they see.'
Titles are tricky. They're important to the user, they provide the text for bookmarks, they appear in search results, and search engines use them as part of ranking algorithms. You need for fit branding into a title, and describe a product, ideally also incorporating a call to action. Tricky stuff. But not impossible.
First, consider the brand. Most companies think their company name should be the first thing in a page title, even if the rest is unique for each page (as it should be). However, unless the company has a household brand name, the company name is irrelevant to the searcher. They're looking for a product (or the answer to a question), so show them you have it.
Next, remember that as titles are used as the text for bookmarks, links and appear in search engines, they should, when taken out of context, by themselves, leave no doubt what a page is about.
A good example of a title is:
- "Norwegian Blue Parrot - Buy Norwegian Blue Parrots from Mr. Praline's Pet Shop".
You've included the all-important product name twice in the title, along with a call to action, a hefty dose of branding, and not added irrelevant information. It's a title that tells the user straight away what the page is about. No messing around.
- Client:'Ok, the titles need sorting, but what about the content of the site? I keep hearing that "Content is King".'
- Me:'Content is, ultimately, King. Sites with lots of great content will, over a decent time period, far outperform sites with no original content. But content doesn't just have to be on site ...'
Product is important. The object you sell though is only half of the picture. A user will want support from you. They will want information. They may want news. All of this is part and parcel of the package a company offers. Your site needs good, visible support (including a phone number), as well as plenty of good, original information. Guides to products, online manuals, FAQs, advice - there are always areas, in any industry, where content can be added.
Content need not be solely posted on the website either. Big news should be released as a press release, and there are plenty of services that will distribute press releases for you. These will be reproduced all over the web, allowing more and more people to hear of the company. Most press release services will allow you to embed a link to a site in a press release, generating more direct traffic as well.
When writing content, or advising on the writing of content, remember that it is not about keywords. Sure, keywords are important, but there is more to it than simply stuffing as many keywords into text as possible. Content needs to answer questions - to provide information. It needs to give a user what they are looking for, and they need to feel that it has done that. Content that is written for SEO can read very badly with too many keywords in, and can mean that although more people see an article, most of them leave the site straight away to find a better one.
A good way to add content to a site is a blog, or a news section. Aside from adding plenty of information, this gives a great opportunity to connect with the user. Consumers are constantly being targeted, from every angle, by companies anxious to take their money. Sometimes they get trodden on. When adding content to your site, stay on the side of the average consumer. Recently, in the UK, the energy companies all raised their prices dramatically. Sites that allow users to compare fuel prices almost all missed a great opportunity to have themselves noticed - not one of them posted a decent news item denouncing the changes as unnecessary or over the top. They all simply commented on the change factually.
While on the one hand, some of these companies may be unable to comment in this fashion (and many companies have strict policies regarding neutrality and customer perception), at least one should have been able to stand out by taking a clear, customer-supporting position on the issue. That is the kind of thing that gets companies noticed and remembered, and spotting opportunities like that is key to a good marketing strategy.
Not all content need be inflammatory of course. It does need to be unique in some way, however. It can be controversial, but it could also be definitive - the ultimate and complete guide to a topic. Controversial content is interesting to the user, and definitive content is just plain useful - either makes for good content for any website.
Users go through different stages when buying products, and one of the early ones is a research stage. There is always a good chance that a user will come back to the same place that helped them or impressed them when they were doing research to buy what they were looking for. This is branding - associating specific ideas and feelings with your company. You want your users, when they revisit the web to make a purchase, to think of your company first.
Which brings us nicely to our last, and most important point. Why would a customer think of any company first, ahead of any other. Content will help, yes. A nice design might even make a difference. More than anything else, though, customers pay attention to the company that stands out from the crowd - the company that is different, that offers them something nobody else does. Often known as a Unique Selling Point, or USP, this is the thing that makes you memorable, or if ignored helps you blend into the crowd.
- Client:'But we don't have a USP. How do we get one?'
- Me:'Well, hang on one minute. You say you don't have a USP, but is there nothing about your product that makes it better than the alternatives?'
- Client:'Well, we sell Norwegian Blue Parrots. They're all the same, really. Although a rather large proportion of our competitors appear to sell mostly dead ones.'
- Me:'There you go then. Your USP is that your product is, in fact, not dead.'
- Client:'By that reasoning, a USP could be almost anything, when put in the right light. And when did we turn into a Monty Python sketch?'
- Me:'Be quiet about the Monty Python thing. Yes, though, a USP can be virtually anything. It can be quicker delivery than competitors, better products, better customer service, a freephone enquiries number, or simply the people that run the business. Almost every business has a USP - although most of them don't know what it is.'
Many businesses don't know their own USP. They can't tell you, when you ask, what makes them different. Many of them will just say "because we're better than the others", but can't explain why. Usually, however, a quick chat will reveal what makes them stand out. Whatever the USP is, it needs to be clear and obvious on the website. The customer can't miss it, because if they don't know what makes one business different from another, they're not going to remember it.
- Client:'What about search? You've not told me how to get my site to the top of the search engines!'
- Me:'Let's review, shall we. You've changed your site substantially, so that it meets current standards and you can sell to more of your users. You're showing your clients why you are better than your competition. You've started releasing press releases, and adding content to your site. You're championing the cause of the common man, increasing link numbers and getting people talking about your business. And you know how your users find your site, and what they do when they get there.'
- Me:'You're positioning yourself as a great resource for your market. Your search engine rankings will come as a direct result of everything else you are doing. You're going to perform well in search, as a direct result of good marketing.'
- Client:'I'll get my chequebook.' (Hah. As if.)